Category Archives: Trail

Pilgrimage

pilgrim

1. a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion

2. a traveler or wanderer, especially in a foreign place.

3. An idiot who looks like they just got off the boat and haven’t a clue as to where they are. (Urban Dictionary)

Barcelona Marathon is now only a few days away, and my training has been erratic at best.  My regime that is yet to go viral in Hollywood, consists of 10ks here and there, mostly to the office; the occasional jog during a kids’ party; cross-training (a plunge into the pool during the daughter’s swimming lesson); and a 110k trail run.

The latter took place a few weeks ago in early February, as if that made a difference in the era of climate change. The Pilgrim Challenge was my first ever ultra race (that I finished. I’m still writing about the other one), and I had spent more time thinking through childcare logistics than systematic training. Still, I was less nervous than at the start line of a Saturday park run. Pace would be irrelevant on this historic route through South Downs – all I had to do to was to put one foot in front of another, and I have over thirty years of demonstrable experience in this. It is a skill that has only ever been compromised after three consecutive pisco sours, or at 4,500 metres altitude (the ultra I didn’t finish). Surrey is about 134 metres above the sea level and as here I can’t even find Gatorade, except the cherry flavoured one (yuk), my Camelpack carried just plain water.

I’ve been asked many times in the past few weeks by people at work, what is an ultra.  I say it’s basically the only sporting event where you see some people finishing off their fags while others pack their backpacks with Snickers bars before setting off for a run that is still going on when you leave the office. So far, I haven’t convinced anyone to sign up.

But everyone should! It’s a completely unique feeling to check your watch at 17km and know that you’ve barely started. The distance between each well-staffed check point is what most people would consider a full race. And the check points themselves are what most people would consider a kids’ birthday party before kids started to drink green smoothies – loaded with sugar in its various glorious forms.

My arrogance for having ran in the Andes was quickly taken care of by the muddy hills of Surrey.  Who knew there were hills in Southern England? Luckily,  I have no healthy survival instinct running downhill – the right playlist will turn me into a human avalanche on steroids counting aloud the number of black and yellow backpacks passed. The people carrying them were most likely to be training for MDS (Marathon de Sables), the real shit among many ultra-runners. And there I was – there I was among seasoned pilgrims, elite runners and people with a goal to qualify for Rio Olympics – and not feeling completely out of place.

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Check point one: Some were feeling more victorious than others

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The Pilgrim Challenge is a ‘multi-day’ event, which means spending a night on a floor of a school hall and having the opportunity to bond with other runners over the dinner, shower queues and breakfast. Obviously, there’s no drinking or staying up late. To add to the Christian summer camp feel, we had an evening of listening to speakers.  After a sports massage (another great perk), I crawled into my sleeping bag thinking about the women’s MDS 2015 winner, Elizabeth Barnes and what she said about work life balance. There isn’t one. There are work life choices, and you make them. She certainly did, as she cut her management consulting job down to three days a week to be able to train professionally before she became an elite athlete. I wonder if we could have her speak at our next work away day.

I’ve heard lots of motivational speakers, but none of them have told me that life is too short for spending it in an office.  First you’re too young. And one day you’ll be too old. Now I’m in that in-between part when you do a lot of admin and don’t have ANY time. Reading my old diary entries to my daughter have made me realise how big a part sports and running in particular has been in forming my sense of identity, but time after time I have turned down opportunities to make any serious commitment in favour of something more sensible.

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My pilgrimace

Arguably there are some things – like getting a cash ISA or having a pension – that fall into the category of ‘more sensible than getting up at 6 am to have a cold shower and then run 33 miles, having just run 33 miles the day before’. Some of them are also less ache-causing. I’m still recovering from an inflamed tendon that was probably caused by changing into my road runners for no better reason than that I thought my trail shoes were a bit muddy. Since then, I’ve consistently gone against the physiotherapist’s advice to cut down the mileage. I’m hoping this won’t slow me down in Barcelona as my focus returns to pace.

But the Pilgrim Challenge, on the other hand, wasn’t a race. It was a runway.

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Problems and possibilities

In February, the always reliable BBC reported that training very hard is as bad as no exercise at all. Timed well to relieve the guilt of possibly already broken new year’s resolutions, the study of 1000 people found that strenuous joggers were more likely to die sooner than couch potatoes. Later it turned out there were 36 people in the self defined category of ‘strenuous joggers’ and two of them died (of unknown reasons), but the story was out, and now only strenuous joggers and sociologists were interested in the truth.

So when my running buddies joke that I run nine days a week, it’s not far off the truth. Never mind what BBC would make of that, I don’t know how many casualties there might be if I DIDN’T run. The more intensive training plan the coach Rolando has devised to prepare us for the Lima 42k in May, has not just kept this sociologist out of mischief but also reasonably balanced.  This is code for not going completely berserk. Because, man, do I have reasons to start buffering:

  • The school holiday in Peru is longer than an average Kardashian marriage and about as long as the Falklands War, which precipitates all kinds of problems in itself.
  • Our tourist visas expired, of course we had made zero progress in obtaining residency, and thanks to the mental damage caused by David Cameron I couldn’t bear the thought of staying in any country illegally. Having read about foreigners being denied re-entry or, worse, being kidnapped by bandits, our border hopping trip to Ecuador was ok. DD got fined for overstaying her visa, though. Given that the stamps in our passports had exactly the same dates, and that you just don’t argue with border officials, my only conclusion is that time must literally fly faster when you’re small (except on school holidays), a bit like, you know, dog years. It was the only time in my life I was happy that I don’t own a Bichon Frisé.
  • There comes a point when a career break becomes unemployment. We can argue about the exact coordinates, my guess is definitely by the time the bank balance drops below £49. My sympathies go to anyone trying to find a job in a foreign country that requires that you’ve gone to primary school (and possibly other places…) with every juan pablo worth knowing. Peace be with you.
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Feeding iguanas in Guayaquil, Ecuador

So against these and other adversities, I’m happy to share some running success. My first race since the Amazon Race Forest, was slightly less respectable 10k dirt track by the beach on a hot Sunday that the Real Club organisers preposterously called the ‘marathon’. (Real Club is a leisure club…) Had it been a marathon, I’d be in the world records, which I’m not, but nevertheless took my first ever podium position in an organised race. I also got 500 soles (and so doubled my wealth) for coming second! This was great given I’d just spent 200 soles to sign up to run 21k in the North Face Endurance Challenge on 28th February. I can’t help feeling that my achievement had something to do with the state of women’s participation in amateur sports in this country.  The very elite aside, the people from Huancayo aside, I think the gap between men and women’s level in such events is not really justifiable. But if that means I can run through the cracks and to the podium, what are ideals for if not for discussion?

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She’s not here to discuss ideals.

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Miraflores Runners took home four medals in three categories.

No such cracks at the NFC event though. We’re talking about one of the main ultra and mountain races (including a 10k and 21k) events in Peru taking place in the serros of Asia, about 100km south from Lima. The landscape may feel homely if you’re e.g. a Taliban, but for me the sight of endless dry rocks, sand and scree with a few pitiful cactuses, made a too strong metaphor for the solitude I often feel in this country. If it was a jigsaw, it would be one of those fucked up ones with 5000 pieces and just two colours: blue and brown. I filled my bag with more water, snacks, vaseline and sun screen than what might have been necessary.

The NFC also supposedly had cut-off points, meaning anyone taking longer than a set time to pass an aid-station would be automatically disqualified. I didn’t see this being enforced by any degree (as with most of civil law in Peru), any more than I saw anyone getting penalised for throwing rubbish on the route, another commendable principle, I think.

What was enforced, and controversially so, was the two hour penalty to the originally claimed male winners of the 80k, Remigio Huamán and Emerson Trujillo. According to the race organiser, the elite runners had “involuntarily shortcut”. This is a very Peruvian way of assuming responsibility, be it bad sign posting or bad public policy. (“!No es mi culpa!”, as I’ve heard several times from our back garden during this – did I already say ‘long’? – school holiday.)

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Still the winner, Remigio Huamán. Still alive, me. (right to left, ahem)

Apparently somewhere at 70k, the two leaders (“involuntarily”) missed a turn and so cut 3 km of the official route. Of course the opprobrium of Peruvian runners and fans, was not the least alleviated by the gold or, to be exact, North Face gift vouchers – which makes it worse – being now handed over to a gringo, Michael Wardian (US). “The route wasn’t well sign posted,” people protest on Facebook. Even worse, some of the poor course marshals whose job it was to keep the runners on the route, had involuntarily fallen asleep when the first runners passed them at the crack of dawn! (They’d been up since 2am and it was only the most hailed ultra marathon event of the year.) Those who hadn’t, gave wrong, even contradicting directions, which ANYONE who has ever asked for directions to ANYWHERE in Peru will find extremely shocking…

But back to the more interesting topic, that is me, at least to me. Although proper trail shoes and protective gloves wouldn’t necessarily go to waste on a route like this, I enjoyed every second of the race, and was kept going by some atavistic survival instinct. When many seemed beaten by the mountains, I was able to pick up pace and run the last four kilometres well below 5min/km ending up as the 16th woman. More importantly, this race marked a special anniversary. One year ago, one momen20150228_093432t I had been filling my time sheet or doing whatever important shit consultants do on a Friday, and preparing to go for drinks with the colleagues. The next, I was sitting in front of someone with a lot of letters in front of their name calling an operating theatre about an urgent case of a female patient, who I figured, had some connection with me.

A lot has passed since the spine operation, including miles I thought I’d never be able to run. The organisation of these events hasn’t put me off the idea of doing an ultra marathon either. It’s Peru. “Problem and possibility”, as Jorge Basadre, the nation’s historian put it nicely. By the time I’ll be passing them, no course marshals will be asleep anymore – or they’ll be waking up to my victory scream, should I ever, ever, ever in my life make it past 70 km. And I promise, they don’t want that to happen.

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iFitness photographer exposes the ‘I enjoyed every second’ lie.

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Amazing Race

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Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

Chullachaqui is a legendary devil of the Amazonian jungle. He has the ability to take the physical appearance of a family member or loved one of his victim, to lure you deep into the rainforest where he then leaves you, lost forever.

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Picture by Carina Ramos. On ARF Facebook page.

My loving boyfriend told me this at the starting line of the Amazon Race Forest half marathon that took place last Sunday in the village of San Roque de Cumbaza in San Martin, Peru. I had looked forward to the race so much, that if on my laptop you type ‘Amazon’ in the google bar, the retail company will appear only on the page three of the search results. We had signed up for 21 kilometres in the blazing sun, but there were also people doing the full marathon distance, and a shorter 10k trail run. I looked around and saw mostly lean bodies doing warm ups and wearing the latest running gear that a few months ago I didn’t even know existed. This was definitely no McDonald’s charity run.

If one were to miss the orange signposts, and wasn’t wearing the event sponsor Suunto’s GPS watches (which, by the way, is a Finnish brand. Just saying.), the way to recognise Chullachaqui is, apparently, by looking at his feet. ‘Chulla’ means dissimilar and ‘chaqui’ means foot. If you notice that your loved one has a foot peculiarly bigger than the other, then probably you are being tricked by the devil.

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I imagined Chullachaqui to look similar to Gollum.

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An artist’s impression of Chullachaqui at http://www.amaruspirit.org

In hindsight, my boyfriend might have chosen to share another legend after what became three hours of him limbing in the forest with blue toe nails and a twisted swollen ankle. But according to the race directors, and to their credit, no-one went AWOL. Even if the most experienced trail runners among us were surprised by the difficulty of the route.

To give an idea, the winner of the men, Stalin Carrasco, ‘el caballero de trail’, finished the route in two hours. On a normal road race the winner’s time would be around half of that. Maria Delgado Salmon who came third  in women’s marathon distance, was heard saying that the previous eight hours it took her to finish the course were tougher than the famous 100km desert crossing in Paracas on the south coast of Peru.

But at 7am, tropical butterflies in my stomach, I knew nothing of this. If you really need any further indicators of my naivety, then what better than the fact that I decided to have a french pedicure at the Lima airport while waiting for our departure to the city of Tarapoto, the ‘city of palms’. (Some ultra runners have their toe nails removed, because the acid-based procedure is a less painful one than losing them on the track) Also, blame my map reading (I can read a map, but only in 2D!), I didn’t realise how relatively little running there would be along the course! For the rest of the time I was doing what I usually tell my dear daughter off for: climbing, jumping, crawling, sliding down, falling head first, swearing,  and heaving myself up gripping a low branch or a fellow runner’s hand, as we crossed mountains and rivers, and no, Motown was not playing in my head. There were four points with local people offering water and I couldn’t tell from their expressions whether our little adventure left them anything but bemused. The oncoming traffic consisted of a man with a horse, and a woman carrying a baby in a sling wrapped around her body. I had no idea where they came from, or where they were going, but mostly HOW on earth they’d managed to get there.

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The route. I shall never overlook elevation diagrams again. Source: Amazon Race Forest.

I’m sure waking up before 5 am to train with Miraflores Runners and practicing power yoga almost daily in the past months paid off, however. Weekly repeated hill runs and interval training meant that while my calves were throbbing (and three days later still are), my heart was happy, and not just literally. Speeding downhill I felt transcended back into the little girl running in my childhood’s Finnish forests (often to an outdoors toilet) in the middle of the summer. Ecstatically overtaking many military-fit looking men after ten kilometres of uphill, I remembered that for a considerable time of my youth I had entertained the idea of becoming the first black female in the Finnish army (I wonder if that would have been a better choice than the hours of leadership skill workshops at a management consultancy. Not least because I’d soon be retiring.) At one point, the slight young Peruvian woman in front of me, who probably didn’t weigh more than 50kg and didn’t exactly fit the description, said she felt like Rambo. This is why I guess they say running is like a drug. We were on the same trip.

The beauty of the place was (Ujjayi) breath taking. I’d bathed in insect repellent, which knocked out the wildlife within a five mile radius, but I still saw butterflies as big as birds and birds as small as butterflies. (Luckily, I missed the big eggs that my boyfriend saw.) After the first hour, I ditched my headphones as the pounding of David Guetta started to reach levels of irreverence, just like the plastic pollution left on the path by some of the runners*. Those things belonged to the city; here I wanted to be able to hear the sounds of the nature, which I’d usually pay an entrance for, and leave through a gift shop.

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Until recently, the Chirikyaku population in San Roque mainly cultivated cocaine. This has been replaced by coco beans. Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

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*I don’t know how much extra effort it would have been for the runners to pick up their own rubbish.The route was cleaned by locals afterwards. Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

The sight of the finish line took me by surprise too. I’d long stopped relying on my Garmin watch. Not because the satellites weren’t working, but because distance became a completely useless indicator. One kilometre could mean anything between five or twenty minutes depending on what the path in front turned out to be. (Did I just come up with a running and life metaphor for Pinterest? No? Perhaps if I paste it in a big font over some instagrammed abs?)

It took me 3 hours 45 minutes. I feel this was a decent achievement but in trail running the position (which are yet to be published by the ARF organising team) matters more than the finishing time. Nearly two hours after I’d taken advantage of the onsite ‘facilities’ and catering – bathed in the river Rio Cumbaza and sucked my teeth in five oranges – people were still reaching the finish line. (Of course some had run the full marathon.)

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Rio Cumbaza. Needless to say, the sight of the river beat reaching the best located hydration point in a city race. Picture by Maria Viloria Ortin published on ARF Facebook page.

For visitors, the Amazon Race Forest is nothing less than bucket list material. For the locals – who rightly took home much of the bling – I hope well organised events like this bring more benefits than the Olympics did for London. I don’t have such data, but I believe this is the case. For one, runners eat a lot (I have a new  Peruvian love affair: ‘juane con cecina’ which is rolled plantain with marinated bacon-like cured pork. Try. It.). They go to bed earlier than the average eight-year-old, and don’t leave beer cans around. Bar some portaloos, they don’t need additional infrastructure – the route has probably been chosen for its inaccessibility. Their adrenaline addiction feeds on the natural environment, so possibly their presence increases the awareness of the region’s fight against the expansion of gas and oil companies in the Amazon.

Perhaps that’s why Chullachaqui didn’t appear. Believed to be a member of ancient species that lived in the jungle long before humans, he started his mischief to take revenge on people who had little respect for the forest or those that lived there first. Which naturally earned him the devil status. With the gas and oil companies, the indigenous people seem to find themselves in the same predicament.

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My half way victory smile. Pinched from the ARF Facebook page.

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